CU­RI­OUS LIFE: JEREMY BENTHAM

Smith Journal - - Smith Stuff -

If you’ve ever felt that you’ve con­trib­uted in­suf­fi­ciently to a meet­ing, con­sole your­self with the knowl­edge that one of the finest and most in­flu­en­tial thinkers in Bri­tain’s his­tory has at­tended many at which he has not ut­tered a word. Jeremy Bentham does, ad­mit­tedly, have the ex­cuse of hav­ing been dead since 1832. Nev­er­the­less, Bentham’s alma mater, Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, oc­ca­sion­ally in­dulges the great philoso­pher’s pres­ence at coun­cil meet­ings, at which he is recorded as “present, but not vot­ing”. Bentham’s will re­quested that his body be pre­served in state, of a sort, as an “auto-icon”: his skele­ton clad in his own clothes, and his head pre­served though a process of des­ic­ca­tion (ex­treme dry­ing). The sec­ond part of the op­er­a­tion did not go as planned, and so the ac­tual head in which the mod­ern creed of util­i­tar­i­an­ism was ges­tated – along with re­mark­ably pro­gres­sive ideas about fe­male eman­ci­pa­tion and gay rights – was re­placed with a wax fac­sim­ile. The orig­i­nal cra­nium was placed first on the floor of the cabi­net con­tain­ing Bentham, then in a wooden box on top of the cabi­net, then on a plinth over a door in UCL’s South Clois­ters, and fi­nally in a safe in the In­sti­tute of Ar­chae­ol­ogy. (It re­turned to pub­lic dis­play in late 2017.) The prob­lem was that Bentham’s head kept get­ting stolen. Once, it was re­turned upon the mak­ing of a char­i­ta­ble do­na­tion; on an­other oc­ca­sion it was re­cov­ered from a lug­gage locker in Aberdeen. A man as clever as Bentham should have been able to fore­see the in­evitable con­se­quences of spend­ing eter­nity among stu­dents. AM

Photo: Tony Slade, Cour­tesy of UCL Cul­ture

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